News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 23, 2013

Saving an aging cabin car

Nearly a century old, Pennsylvania Railroad car gets a home at museum

Dianne Frances D. Powell
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — An important piece of Terre Haute railroad history has been saved for future generations and is now available for display.

About 30 people gathered Sunday at the Wabash Valley Railroaders Museum for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that officially opened the newly restored Pennsylvania Railroad 981741, a 99-year-old cabin car, better known as a caboose.

The car was built in April 1914 “as an N6b class center-cupola ‘cabin car’” at the Terre Haute shop of Pennsylvania Railroad. It was used in regular freight service.

“As far as we can tell, it is the last surviving caboose built in Terre Haute,” said Bill Foster, president of the Haley Tower Historical and Technical Society.

After its life as a functioning train car, it has served various, unexpected purposes.

In the 1960s, the car was acquired by a local doctor and used as a playhouse on his property at Terre Haute’s east side, according to a file provided by the Haley Tower Historical and Technical Society, the non-profit organization that restored car 981741.

Years later, the car was given to the Terre Haute Parks Department and was installed at Dobbs Park. It was then used as a “birthday party caboose” and play attraction for kids.

Heavily vandalized and already showing signs of its age, city officials determined sometime in the early 2000s that the car was no longer safe for visitors, according to the society.

“The doors were broken. ...The cupola support structure was rotten,” the document stated. “It was rotten in more places than you could count.”

Other groups in the area attempted to restore car 981741 over the years.

“Destined for a local landfill,” the car was donated by the city to the Haley Tower Historical and Technical Society in 2006.

Members of the society took on the task of restoring car 981741 to its former glory. It was “painted and equipped like it would have been when it rolled off the shop floor in Terre Haute in 1914,” according to the society.

And it was.

On display for the ribbon cutting Sunday was car 981741, with its new paint, new siding, structural lumber and even new cupola. Inside are a new roof, cushions, floors and closets.

A local carpenter built the cupola from scratch, Foster said.

Member Jim Rhodes and his friend, Scott Withrow stenciled the letters on the car.

But some parts, such as the icebox and drawers, were still the originals.

The cabin car, used by the train’s conductor and two breakmen when it was operational, was originally built with “all the comforts of home,” Foster said.

Foster said each member donated their time — “many hours” — to personally work on the restoration project. It cost $10,000, he said.

But the many hours are well-spent, Foster said, since it saved the car that “has a lot of history here.”

Mayor Duke Bennett thanked the people gathered at the ceremony for their work on the restoration effort.

“You saved it,” Bennett said. “You’ve done a great job.”

After cutting the ribbon, Bennett took the key and opened the doors to the cabin car.

“Thanks for all your hard work. It’s on you guys. You did it,” the mayor said.

The mayor and the members then toured the car.

Foster is just happy with the group’s accomplishment.

“I’m overjoyed. It’s been such a long process,” he said. “I’m just glad it’s done.”

And now, through the society’s efforts, many can learn about Terre Haute railroad history.

“Terre Haute has a long history with railroading. We’re at the crossroads of America not only for highways but also for railroads,” Bennett said. “Always have been.”

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@tribstar.com.